Back in the 1980s, when Donald Kaul was a columnist for The Gazette, our paper frequently ran an ad promoting his columns. Or was it a sort of warning label, for the fainthearted and easily offended?
“When you stand up for your convictions sometimes you stand alone,” the ad’s bold type insisted. “You may not always agree with his opinions, but you’ll soon see why he’s Iowa’s most popular columnist.”
There’s no doubt Kaul stood alone in Iowa journalism. Heck, in journalism, period. His voice, wit and bite are legendary still. Love him or hate him, there was no one else like him. For me, he was the first newspaper columnist I recall reading regularly, in the Des Moines Register. Between Kaul, Mike Royko and Mad magazine, it’s no wonder how I turned out.
Kaul died this week at age 83. That sad fact sent me to The Gazette’s archives. He wrote columns for the paper from 1984 to 1989. In 1987, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, finishing second to Charles Krauthammer, now also gone.
In those archives are Kaul’s columns, of course, and even more letters to the editor. It’s true. People did not always agree.
“I keep hoping the powers that be at The Gazette will give Donald Kaul more space to babble. I just can’t seem to get the fish guts wrapped in that little, bitty column,” wrote a reader in March 1985.
“If he tore Russia apart as he does our good president, he’d be living in the salt mines of Siberia or relieved of his agony by a firing squad. How long is The Gazette going to keep him on the payroll?” wrote another reader, in the same March 1985 paper.
Sometimes, Kaul responded, such as when a reader complained he was too tough on Ronald Reagan.
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“I don’t hate Ronald Reagan,” Kaul wrote in July, 1988. “Admittedly, from time to time I am forced to point out he has the attention span of a 5-year-old with the itch, he gets his sense of reality from Alice in Wonderland and he is careless with his oath of office. It’s my job … On the other hand … He has a nice smile. He tells a joke well. No one has ever seen him kick a dog.”
“See? I’m fair,” Kaul wrote.
In May 1986, he called “Hands Across America” a “stupid” idea that would make some people feel good but do precious little to actually address hunger in America.
“Once the line is joined, I propose giving the guy in California an electric shock and see if it lights a bulb held by the end man in New York,” Kaul wrote.
A famously bad speller, Kaul stood up for a Reagan judicial appointee in 1986 criticized by Democrats for spelling errors in his rulings.
“People think just because you don’t spell well, you’re dumb. What kind of people? Smart-alecky people who can’t think of but one way to spell a word, that’s who. That’s not spelling; it’s a failure of the imagination,” he wrote.
On the possibility of former Iowa Gov. Bob Ray becoming U.S. agriculture secretary during the farm crisis — “like being told you’ve made the high school track team — as a javelin catcher.”
On Iowa’s “rotten” winters in February 1986 — “The sun came out for 15 minutes one day in the middle of the week. If you were blowing your nose (and who isn’t?) you probably missed it. People on the streets responded as a primitive tribe experiencing a total eclipse of the sun. They kept pointing at the sky, yelling “Look! Look!” Some of the younger children cried. Their parents had to remind them what the sun was …”
On campaign finance in 1987 — “I found out that Terry Branstad spent $2 million to beat out Lowell Junkins for governor last fall. Think on that, two mill to prove you’re a better man than Lowell Junkins! Imagine what he’d have had to spend to beat Harold Hughes.”
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In 1986, Kaul worried about incoming Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his views on charging columnists with libel.
“Jumping Jefferson! If newspaper columnists are going to be held accountable for what they say, what will become of the country? Who will be in charge of blurting out the truth?” Kaul wrote.
Truth is, we’re now up to our ears in blurters of abject nonsense. Truth-blurters are under attack, daily. And now we’ve lost one more.
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